Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Digital Milgram

So, in this season of shopping I wanted to share a couple of experiences which happened to me while dealing with young people working in the world of retail. Now, many years ago I was both young, and worked retail, and it is quite possible I was guilty of similar actions when I did so; however, I don't think so, and I think it has to do with generational differences. Before we go on, let me take a moment to discuss the “Milgram Experiment.”

In the early 1960's, Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale, conducted a group of experiments which basically tested how obedient people would be to authority. I won't go in depth (please read the excellent Wikipedia Article), but the basic conclusion was 65% of test subjects performed an act they believed was lethal to another human being because the guy in the lab coat told them to do so. The authority figure told them everything was fine, and though many were uncomfortable, about two thirds did it anyway.

My concern this season is about programmed obedience, but not to a guy in a lab coat, but rather to a machine.

See, in the first instance, the Lovely Jennifer and I were shopping at Target. The nice young cashier told her the bill was $85.65. She handed him $85, missing the last part. He counted the money twice, and Jennifer realized before he did that she had shorted him, and apologetically handed him another dollar.

The young man must have punched the sum of $86 into the register wrong, because he tried to give her $10 dollars change. Despite the fact he had just counted the money, the computer TOLD HIM TO GIVE HER $10, and by God, he was going to do it. Once the situation was explained, we all know all he had to do is put the ten dollar bill back in the register, and his books would be even; however, he couldn't allow the computer to be wrong. He voided the sale and started over. He was extremely apologetic and polite, but see, the Computer could not be wrong.

Our very next stop brought us to Hastings, where they were having a sale, five used books for $20. Music to my ears. The Lovely Jennifer and I confirmed with the nearest book associate that the sale was valid, and picked out some books. Then, I breezed through their comics, and picked out some stuff I wanted to sample; five issues at about $4.00 a piece. See the nice neat pattern? A $40 ticket, with $20 worth of books and $20 worth of comics.

Once we reached the register, the books began to ring up full price, but the young lady behind the computer assured us the computer would adjust the price. She punched in the coupon code, and proceeded to ask us for $70. I told her she was wrong, and there was a sale. She insisted she had punched in the code. I pointed out the two very even sums of $20 that the merchandise cost, and pointed out as well that the five comics I handed her were not $10 a piece, and did not themselves add up to $50. She insisted I must be wrong, because the computer told her this was a $70 purchase.

Those who know me understand I have a tendency to get irate when people don't listen to well reasoned arguments, particularly when just a moment of common sense thought would show there was a problem. Explaining it to her again, she tells me I shouldn't get mad at her, IF there's a problem, she did everything she was supposed to do.

Once the book manager, and then the STORE manager were involved, they realized that one of the used books was mis-marked, and therefore showing up as a new book, and not triggering the proper coupon code. Once this was dealt with, the total was indeed $40 plus tax. The manager apologized, the sales girl did not; it never occurred to her I was not angry not to get my discount, but because she was listening to the computer over her own ability to count. She was so convinced of the computer's infallibility, she forgot the main rule of customer service: the customer is always right, even when he isn't. In this case, I was right, and she never understood why. She didn't have to, because the computer would tell her what to do.

Think this is isolated? Ask the clerk at Starbucks to count your change back to you the next time you buy a latte. Take an online class and have the program score a correct answer on a test as incorrect when it is correct, then convince the instructor of that. Tell someone the forwarded email they got about Mars looking as big as the Moon, contrary to ALL COMMON SENSE is wrong. You will be met with confusion, ambivalence, and downright scorn, hopefully in that order. We don't need to worry about a government going astray, we need to worry about our machines leading us down a primrose path.

Now, am I talking Cylon-like, Terminator take over? No, because our machines are only as good as their users (the Target kid punched in the wrong data; the Hastings book had been tagged improperly). We are asking devices we believe capable of outthinking us to do so with the same information we give them in the first place. That will end in disaster.

Do your world a favor; learn to count. Think critically the next time something looks wrong. Bother to care.

And ignore the irony of it being a guy on a computer asking you to do these things.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Post Game Commentary

Like a thousand other would-be commentator blogs out there, it's time for Black Owl to give the post game assessment of the 2010 mid-terms. They were ugly, and spiteful, and not always particularly honest, but I think there are some winners and losers out there, and I don't necessarily think they are obvious.

Big winner- John Boehner. He is now ringmaster in that circus known as the House, and will be on every website and TV channel he can get his mug plastered upon. He's all about changing Washington... this 20-year Washington politician. Let's hope he takes Michael Jackson's advice and starts with the man in the mirror.

Kinda winner- the Republican party. They made great strides in the House, and have all kinds of an agenda to push: repealing Health Care, fixing the economy (whose troubles have roots in the Clinton presidency while those troubles blossomed in the Bush years, and BO was supposed to already have it all fixed), keeping gays out of the military. They have a lot to do in the next two years. Of course they have absolutely no chance of getting any of it done without the Senate or the White House, but I wish them the best.

Not a winner, but we're saying they are- the Tea Party. They did get a couple of big wins in, but as the Red states have reminded those few Blue states, there's the whole rest of the country. Less than a third of Tea Party backed candidates won. Further, some people are saying the TP lost the Republicans control of the Senate. Ouch.

Losers- The Democrats. You guys did a lousy job of running a campaign. You didn't use facts to counter the half-truths of your opponents, and frankly, the Country has a real right to be mad at you; you swept in with BO and then decided that just having a majority wasn't enough. Despite everything the Pres has made happen, he had to cajole and prod you into action, and it showed. I know, I know, you never REALLY wanted that dude to be President; you were ready for Hillary. You not standing behind your president however has cost you the House, and got you close to losing the Senate. Ouch.

Surprise winner- Barack Obama. The man is still President, and suddenly has something now he didn't have the last two years; Republicans willing to talk. Yeah, I know, they are going to come in like gang-busters, but again, if they actually want to look like they are doing something they do have to appease the Senate, and if I remember my Schoolhouse Rock correctly, the president has to sign their bills into law.

Yep, thought so. That two-thirds veto override is going to be tough too. So to get anything accomplished (here comes the C-word) Republicans will have to compromise; like the President has been trying to get for 24 months. Further, if they don't, the Republicans look like the bad guys in two years. And, I think Barack Obama would like to personally thank the American people for getting Nancy Pelosi the hell out of his way.

Biggest Loser- The American People. More than likely we have a grid-locked Government which will throw insults and rhetoric for the next two years until they can try to completely disparage one another in the next election cycle. That means nothing getting done on either side, and a quagmire which keeps us from growing, improving, or fixing anything...regardless of the side of the aisle one supports. The politics have become far more important than the actual issues. We lose.

Should have voted for this guy. At least he's honest.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Sarcastic Thank You to the American Media and People

Why am I dipping my thanks in a deep irony sauce seasoned with a fresh grind of hostility? Because you (and by you I must indeed include me, as we are “We the People”) and the media we allow to taint our thoughts have successfully managed to befuddle and obfuscate every issue this election cycle. At times, it's been downright lies, but most often it's half-truths interpreted through our ever more polarized worldviews. I have been labeled, rightfully, in one such discussion as a “Centrist Intellectual.” (Let me wipe off the irony sauce and say thank you to my dear Deborah, who though we may disagree, calls them as she sees them, and this is I hope exactly the political persona I hope to project.)

As such, I now have no one for whom to vote. In order to receive kudos from the vocal of either side and their media masters, any show of intellectualism makes a candidate out to be not of the people. Candidates are CLAIMING IGNORANCE as a positive characteristic. Please think about that for a minute, and honestly assess of you want to support someone who claims to be no smarter than you. I can't balance a checkbook, I certainly hope the people for whom I vote are smarter than me. I want them to be smart... but I am apparently in the minority.

Secondly, there's no benefit in moderation today. Be a little in the middle as a Republican, and you are labeled a RINO and some Tea Partier will come along and kill you in the Primary. Be a little in the middle as a Democrat, and websites like “AlterNet.Org” will decide you are just part of the machine carrying on Bush policy. We have become enslaved to our false left-right political spectrum (where does anarchy fall on that spectrum may I ask?) and have paid corporate giants millions to have their talking heads on both sides stop informing us and start simply confirming what we already think we know. Obama's a Socialist? Beck said so, and that's just what I thought, so it must be true. Reagan's the devil? You bet Keith, tell it like it is! We take it and we feed our confirmation bias, and if we do flip to the other channel, it's just to see how wrong the other guy still is.

And that's if we even bother to go to a “news source.” Usually it's just a forwarded email we won't bother to confirm because it falls in line with what we think. Of course, we must then share this with our like minded friends and perpetuate those half truths ourselves.

So here I am, with no candidate to represent my thoughts except ones already in power whom I would like to replace with someone better, or hear the truth about once in a while. I can't; there's no one better running, and no one who's on the side of truth, on the side of America. If you think your political part represents true America, the simple truth is you are wrong. There is no party representing America, because there are too many of us to break into two easily definable groups, and the fact we keep trying is a detriment to our nation and our future.

I am about to make a confession. I am a Liberal. There, I said it.
Oh, you think I mean PELOSI Liberal? Oh hell no. I am a Liberal like Thomas Jefferson, the classical definition, the idea that LIBERTY should be the first consideration. The rights of the people. I see both slides wrapping themselves in that flag, and neither truly representing it. LIBERTY does not mean the Government doing everything for you. LIBERTY also does not mean a powerless Government. We have a Bill of Rights to protect us from an overzealous Government so that that Government can protect us from overzealous Businesses. Indeed, we seem to be on a path to eliminate the governments ability to do anything, and will instead sentence ourselves to slavery to banks and corporations to whom we will be indebted as long as we shall live. The corporation does NOT represent unfettered capitalism. The government MUST keep them honest, and not be enslaved to them. Simply ask Republican President and Monopoly breaker Theodore Roosevelt:

“Probably the greatest harm done by vast wealth is the harm that we of moderate means do ourselves when we let the vices of envy and hatred enter deep into our own natures. But there is another harm; and it is evident that we should try to do away with that. The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.”
Speech at Providence, Rhode Island (1902-08-23), Presidential Addresses and State Papers (1910), p. 103

For there to be true freedom, we must be independent; independent of Government, of Corporation, of Political Party. There was a time Democrats preached that, as did this other Roosevelt:

“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Franklin Roosevelt

I have another confession to make; I am a Conservative. There I said it.
Oh, you think I mean a PALIN Conservative? Oh hell no! I mean the one who wants to leave the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as our ruling ideal. We have to understand what that means. If we want to be Constitutionalist, our government doesn't establish a State Religion, we don't keep people from saying what they think, we leave guns in the hands of the people, and we let some bad guys get away in order to secure Liberty and privacy. Yeah, I know privacy doesn't appear in the Constitution. Primarily because the word in the 1700s related specifically to using the toilet. (Look it up- ever hear the term “using the privy”? Surely you can see the etymological evolution of usage here).

See, I think about these things, and you should too. Think, don't feel. Think, learn to cooperate, because it is what we have in common, which is a hell of a lot more than we disagree on, that will protect us from those who are jealous of what we have. Don't underestimate the internal threat though; we are more of a threat to our own Republic, either through over-legislation, or under-regulation; through taking advantage of an already ailing system, or destroying it so it cannot help those with legitimate need. The answer to America's future lies in the middle, and in thinking so we can differentiate real problems from banner issues meant to get our party elected. We indeed must all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately.

Now, I would like to think I haven't promoted a specific side's agenda here, particularly since I am pretty put out with both. Their posturing as left an impression of doom. Despite the S&P500 showing great progress since January, despite two years of tax cuts from withholding (which leaves money in your paycheck which you spend rather than sending you a check you put in the bank which only helps... the bank), and a severe slowdown on job loss. Also, no one came to take my guns, no one forced me to house soldiers in my home (except of course the one who pays the rent) and I am not a headless body left in the Arizona desert...yet. Also, I have not been locked in prison for my repeated use of the term “aham' d'Allah” or my possession and occasional use of Islamic prayer beads (usually while reciting the Shema and singing hymns or sitting in a lotus position). We are not as bad off as either side says, and neither side is really as bad as their detractors tell you.

But don't take my word for it. Put aside your feelings, read a lot, and THINK about it all. If you change your mind on nothing, you haven't done it right. We all are wrong about something. Go find out what YOU are wrong about. Stop letting the parties tell you it's all the other guy, because you know who's fault it is?


And that's why I am mad at us (and me too).

Saturday, June 05, 2010

It's called the law, Slick.

So, as I understand it, we have laws and rules in our society for a reason. Regardless of where you fall in the Government meddling spectrum, there are rules I think we all agree are there because they need to be. All of us, as individuals have the choice whether or not we want to follow those laws, but in the end, we are saying we are willing to deal with the consequences of violating them. Let's take for instance traffic laws. To me, that is likely the category of law we as citizens are most likely to break.

We may not all agree that a particular stretch of road should have a 30 MPH speed limit as opposed to a higher or lower one, but we usually adhere fairly well. I know on the open road, I like to cruise about ten miles or so higher than the speed limit, but in residential areas, I keep it low. (Please keep in mind I get passed in both situations ALL THE TIME, but that's a blog for another time). There are some places we have all agreed to allow our Governments to enforce more strictly. School zones for instance. Though I often speed, and see fellow speeders, we seem as individuals to understand that doing 50 on a small road next to a school letting kids out is a bad thing. Sure, you may get a ticket for your victimless crime of speeding elsewhere, but as an individual, you may loose your license speeding through a school zone. It's a hazardous area, and there are known safety issues.

We don't increase fines and punishments in school zones to protect the driver. We do it to protect the potential child victims. We know the results of recklessness in a school zone would be catastrophic, and we punish people, individuals, for taking the risk. In Arizona, it's a minimum $300 ticket for speeding in a school zone, and double if there are kids present. What happens when you run over someone?

If circumstances warrant, you go to prison. It's not murder, you didn't intend it. However, if you ignoring safety laws on the streets results in someone dying, you are punished for manslaughter, depending on your assessed amount of culpability. I don't consider this government meddling, I consider it the enforcement of common sense, which unfortunately seems to be necessary in a society supposedly made up of adults. If a person ignores all the warnings, if a person acts in an unsafe manner, and someone else gets hurt, it is only common sense that the violator gets punished. Additionally, the responsible party should pay for property damages. Should the victim die, the violator is guilty of taking human life, and will likely get that manslaughter charge and go to prison. When one individual through their irresponsible actions take another human life, we rely on the Government system to take care of it. We rely on the Government to come up with laws in regard to hazards, we rely on the Government to enforce them, we rely on the Government to punish an individual, a person, when they violate those laws. Especially an egregious violation of safe actions.

What if an individual killed eleven people through willful disregard for the law? What if further, that willful disregard resulted in untold damage to the area around them? Perhaps they ignored an ordnance on fires in city limits. The house next door caught on fire, and eleven people died inside. How would we punish that individual? What if they admitted to their own culpability? Would we say, “That's ok, it's not a big thing of you just sweep up the ashes.” No, that person would go to prison.

I don't care what side of Government regulation you're on. The safety rules for off-shore drilling exist because it is a hazardous situation. It's dangerous to the people on the platform, it's dangerous to the environment, it's hard work done by good people every day. British Petroleum willfully ignored safety again and again, in Washington; in Texas City where another 15 people died; in Alaska. If any individual person repeatedly broke laws protecting the people around them and were responsible for at least 26 deaths, they would be locked up. In particular of a person did those things for the purpose of making more money, they would be reviled, and not just criminal. I am not even going to talk about the oil spill; BP KNEW this rig was dangerous, and they didn't shut it down, and they killed eleven people. I'm not going to argue Government regulation; BP wasn't even following their OWN safety regulations. If BP were a person, they would be locked up, they SHOULD be locked up. This exact situation is why we have laws in the abstract sense, much less the specific OSHA regulations. If only, BP was a person!

Oh wait. They are. In the early 1800s, the United States Supreme Court ruled Corporations were legal persons. The Court upheld this in 1854 with Marshall v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. This Corporation has killed 26 people in the last five years. This person has killed 26 other people. I don't care what anyone's opinion is on Government intervention. Mr. BP has acted in a criminal sense, and in our society we lock up criminals. No, I am not saying we take each member of BP and put them in jail (though some are certainly tempting...), but why do we lock up criminals? To remove them from societal interaction. Then while they are in prison, we employ them for society's benefit; make some license plates or lightbulbs, etc. BP as a corporation should be kept from doing business, from interacting in a normal fashion. Then, when all the money stops coming in, the billions they are worth should be taken and put toward fixing what they have destroyed, not unlike how we take drug dealer money and put it into law enforcement.

Sure, chalk me up as a liberal blogger pissed off about oily birds. Feel free to use your own confirmation bias to feel good about dismissing what I say as just like the green freaks out there. Then notice, I am not talking about the environment. Then think about your kid being the one run down in the school zone. Then think about your kid being the one in the explosions at Texas City or on the Deepwater Horizon. This is about the deaths of human beings for the profit margin of another. This is about a lawful and orderly society, and punishing those who act against it. Government regulation? Don't care, not part of my argument. What I want to know BP, is where, where is your fucking morality? You, BP have acted like a sociopath incapable of empathy, a threat to others around you. You should be punished and your own employees should be protected from you. That's not nosing into business interest, that's not abrogating capitalism, that's what a Government is there to do; protect the interest of citizens. It's too late for 26 of them. Face up to it BP, be a man... you know, like the law says you are.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Wish List

Indeed, the updates on both blogs have become only sporadic, and if you're a fan of the Draft Distro, it's been dry as of late. Even my Facebook and Twitter presence has been abbreviated, simply because... well, I'm busy! So, to try to shame myself into actually doing some of the projects I would like to undertake, I am going to publicly list them to see if that will kick in my “I should DO this” sense. I doubt it will help, but who knows?

Record an album- Ever since I got my Mac with Garage Band built in I have toyed with the idea of recording music. Sure, I'm thinking cover album, but it would be fun to interpret some songs. Periodically I write down music I want to play around with recording, after seeing if I can put a Dan-spin on it. Gnarles Barkley's “Crazy” is on that list, along with the old standard “Satisfied Mind.” The biggest roadblock (besides time, which is the main factor slowing progress on all of these things) is that I have NOT been playing enough guitar this last year, and may need to downright relearn the mandolin. Bad on me. Very bad.

Finish the Johnny Duncan novel- If you've been over to the DDO, you've seen my detective, Johnny Duncan, and even read his first chapter. The whole thing started as a story on the original Draft Distro, and those four short stories form the outline for the overall novel. I am about five chapters in, but damn it's not just time on that, but mindset. I am not always in the right mental place to channel my inner Raymond Chandler, and when I am, it's usually while I am driving somewhere. One day, Johnny, you and me...

Finish all the scratchbuilds I have started- Look, I'm a crappy model builder, but I love doing it, and I love cobbling together parts to make new things. I currently have two Star Trek models sitting there waiting to be finished: one is an original design incorporating the Vulcan style ring nacelle into a Starfleet saucer and linear nacelle configuration. The other is based on the images from Doug Drexler's blog, which upgrades the NX-01 from Star Trek: Enterprise to having a secondary hull. Additionally, I want to rebuild the 1:18th scale bridge I built for my Star Trek action figures, and hope to convert one of the new “Agent Helix” figures from the G.I. Joe line into a modern Lady Jaye. Time, time, time...

Write a comic book- several scripts lying around, need a good artist. Simple fact is though, then I FIND an artist who will deliver, I will fall behind on scripts, and then I'll be no better than Jim Lee or Grant Morrison. Some of these comics include “The Bulge,” which sets Battle of the Bulge-like tank warfare in outer space; “Paragon,” a superhero who is all back and white, no gray areas, and truly loves what he does; “S.T.E.L.L.A.R.,” which tells the story of two future rivals, one a space pirate in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the other an agent of a tyrannical Human empire who's job is to track down the pirate; “Anna and The Human Tank,” about two children turned into weapons of mass destruction who find each other, and decide to retire from all the killing...if they can escape. None of these are coming soon to a comic shop near you.

Start an anonymous Twitter/Blog- Can't tell you what it's about because then it wouldn't be anonymous. I am however all about making points through pseudonyms! Sometimes a message needs to be separated from the one who delivers it. Of course, with how rarely I update the named blogs, that one's a ways off.

Script and film a movie- if you look over on the DDO, you will find “Down With the Sickness” in the original stories, horror section. It's all in my head how that needs to be filmed into a 20 minute short film, with just a few actors and a single set. Quite an undertaking though. Time AND money on that one...

Make more G.I. Joe photo comics- done a few, they are lots of fun if you don't mind wandering around with a camera and a bag of toys to find the right place to shoot the pictures. And, I don't mind.

Read the complete Sherlock Holmes- read a few as a kid, and have the full collection. Recently saw the Guy Ritchie movie version and loved it. Think I now have the maturity to digest 19th Century writing and adventure, need to take these in like I did the ERB Tarzan a couple of years ago.

Train for a half marathon- should be easy right? I mean I already did the full one. The “Mount Lemmon” half-marathon is 13.1 miles uphill. That's going to take prep I am not sure I have the time (or lungs) to accomplish.

So, that's the short list of undone things lying in my head and on my work table and on my hard drive. There's a short gap between semesters coming up, so maybe I can get something done there. Otherwise, looks like I might have a pretty full retirement!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Traffic fines more important than Health Care

Love it or hate it, or distinctly ambivalent; ignoring it won't make it go away. How about a little integrity there Fox. Even if you are right and this is the biggest step we've ever taken toward the fall of the Republic, doesn't that still make it the top story?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Don't fall for this.

I have expressed many opinions on this blog since it's quietly anonymous start back in 2004. This however may be my first actual cause. I am asking you:

Don't use the self check out at the grocery or retail store.

“But Dan!” I hear you say, “It's faster when I have a few things and it's nicer for the baggers!”

Is it?

See, here's my first issue with these infernal devices: They aren't faster because the people trying to use them (and I completely include myself in this list) don't know HOW to use them. How do I deal with fruit which has no barcode? What happens when the scale doesn't register that I bagged my item? How do I delete when I double scanned? Sure there's a friendly employee there to help out, but in that case, why didn't he or she just check me out in the first place? The whole line would have moved faster for all of us had Friendly Employee simply did it the first time, mistake free (whole 'nother argument whether or not friendly employee would be that efficient- maybe another time). However, my main reasoning for calling this boycott has to do with helping out Friendly Employee.

You've all seen how it works: four to eight self check-outs, one employee. Statistically, that means the corporation (where we see these, Wal-Marts, Safeways, etc...) can hire about a third less cashiers. Or even lay off or cut hours on those they have. More money for the corporate HQ, less for those who work for them. Let's be honest though; if the overhead is down, and I save money at the store, I may be willing to overlook automation putting the single parent down the street out of work.

Has YOUR grocery bill gotten cheaper? Indeed, do you even get a discount using the auto-check? Let's review how this works. Corporations buy stuff to sell you wholesale, and then mark it up to pay for the cost of the goods, the cost of shipping and stocking, and the cost of paying employees to serve you! This means, when you choose to use self check out, you are momentarily working for the company! You're not getting any cash benefit (a discount), and you are still giving the store money to have someone check you out, but you are doing it for them. Do you think that money is showing up in employees raises? Is that money allowing stores to hire MORE employees? I doubt both those points, but if someone can show me either is happening, I will be happy to post a retraction. I have a feeling though this cost saving measure is going only in to corporate coffers.

Now, I'm a big capitalist- I don't mind corporations making money fairly and through ethical business practices. I certainly don't begrudge the cashiers- regardless of my occasional bad experience, these are some of the hardest working people in the American workforce. They deserve to be paid and employed. I do not however, have to allow myself to be blatantly robbed by Wal-Mart. I have paid for the service, and I want the service.

Recently I was shopping at Safeway, and it was crowded. I had four items. Guess what wasn't open? The express lanes. My choice was pay Safeway to let me check myself out, or stand behind the line with people with full baskets. I stood and waited.

And so did others. Within minutes, four people with low item counts eschewed the self check line, and got behind me. Safeway then opened the express lane.

Seeing we can make a difference, I ask you! Don't use the self check out! Don't pay a store to let you check out! Keep capitalism fair and demand the service you pay for!

And may God have mercy on us all!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Suicide Girls

No real comment, just found it interesting that a Google search for the words "suicide" and "girls" brings up both of these images. Now that's a war of ideas...

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Official Black Owl review of James Cameron's “Avatar.”

Oh, where to begin? I suppose at the beginning. (Massive Spoilers!!!!!)

In the future, mankind is out and about in the stars, and have located the forest moon of Pandora. Not only is Pandora lush in flora and fauna, but a noble sentient race, the Na'vi, make the moon their home in various tribes situated in various locales. The moon Pandora is also rich in the extremely valuable mineral “unobtanium” which means the humans are willing to do what they must to, well, obtain it.

Along with the Military/Industrial mission to Pandora to mine the unobtanium, there is also a scientific team using “avatar” technology to study and communicate with the native Na'vi. This means scientists have cloned human/Na'vi hybrids capable of surviving on Pandora's atmosphere. The human half allows for a mental transference; i.e. the human DNA donor can actually project mentally into the nine foot tall blue body as if it were their own, while their own frail human shell lies in a transmitting chamber.

A member of the team dies in a freak accident, but happens to have a twin brother who is a Marine. Jake Sully takes his brother's place in the scientific mission, but for the first time is a member who straddles the line to the military. Additionally, the former Marine suffers from paralysis due to an old war wound- use of the avatar will allow him to walk again.

Though initially there only to help the Military backed Corporation exploit the Na'vi, he becomes attached, falls in love with the Chief's daughter, and proves himself to be the great warrior they need to defeat the superior human forces.

So what's good? The imagery and cinematography are without peer. Every frame and design are beautiful, from the graceful (and scientifically plausible) human starship the Venture Star, to the Scorpion helicopters, to the Battletech-like power suits. The organic design is also masterful, with the majority of Pandora's wildlife designed by the famed Wayne Barlowe, known as the author of “Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.” (A must have for all geeks BTW.) With a single exception (to be discussed later) the fauna of Pandora follows an evolutionary chain lending a stunning realism and suspension of disbelief to the creatures.

The cast has some of my favorite performers. Sam Worthington, despite being in some awful movies, is always worth watching. Zoe Saldana, the newest Leiutenant Uhura in my favorite film of the last decade, Star Trek, delivers as Neytiri the Chieftain's daughter even through the mask of motion capture CGI imagery. Her skinny blue alien is, and maybe I'm a freak for saying it, sexy as all get out. James Cameron alumni Sigourney Weaver, no stranger to dealing with aliens herself gets to perform as both human scientist and nine foot blue hottie. So what could be wrong?

Well, everything else.

I have hugged more than a few trees in my time, and I have taken responsibility for my share of White Guilt over the abominable treatment of the Native Americans. Cameron wants to make sure we do both, and he isn't hiding this message- he's bludgeoning us with it. Where's the subtle message of cooperation so deftly delivered in “The Abyss”? How about the sidebar conversations on the inevitability, or non-inevitability, of being destroyed by our own science in “Terminator”? Where's the quiet little jabs at Corporate inhumanity as personified by Paul Reiser in “Aliens”? All of these themes which rode in on the backs of movies in the form of brilliant Science Fiction allegory are replaced by Cameron reaching out of the screen and choking you with the barest minimum of character development or plot to deliver the social message. There are no characters in this film- there are stereotypes. Giovanni Ribisi I assume was cast as Parker Selfridge, the Corporate dick, because Paul Reiser was unavailable to reprise his role from Aliens. Sigourney Weaver tapped her Dian Fossey button from her performance in “Gorillas in the Mist.” The military commander, Colonel Miles Quaritch (which I have to assume is named for H.R. Haggard's novel 'Colonel Quaritch, V.C.” about a military man forced to fit into a quiet, nature-like country environment) is nothing more than a two dimensional amalgamation of every military hard ass to grace the silver screen. From reveling in his scars to casually clutching a coffee cup while on missions of genocide, he's about as deep as my belly button. The only character who goes through any transformation or development at all is Jake Sully, who one could very well argue becomes sympathetic to the Na'vi because the avatar program lets him walk again, and no longer being paralyzed means hot jungle sex with a nine foot tall blue Zoe Saldana. Speaking of stereotypes, let's discuss the Na'vi.

After countless hours someone spent imagining the ecosystem of Pandora, the culture of the Na'vi is simply lifted from your standard “noble savage” story. The tribal rituals, the native peoples type accents- no originality WHATSOEVER in their existence. The only attempt at allegory instead of direct rip off is the Na'vi's ability to psychically link with the animals of Pandora- they are literally connected instead of symbolically. Physically, instead of giving us something truly alien, we get exaggerated versions of Western beauty images. Long legs, rounded hips, full lips; only the somewhat feline facial features and impossibly long bodies make them alien at all (Yeah, ok, and they're blue). Their expressions of emotions- exactly human. Their symmetry, idealized human. Why is it every other form of animal life we see on this planet, from the big rhino things to the black panther dogs, even the pterodactyls, have six limbs, but the Na'vi only have four? Are they a transplant? As far as their worship- of course there's a Mother Goddess, and though there is an attempt to give some scientific reasoning to her existence, we are still looking at the same old Gaia/Earth Mother/Living Planet idea used in such brilliant movies as “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.”

The story? Equally derivative. If you caught a double feature of “Dances with Wolves” and “Pocahontas” you have seen this film. Did Neytiri really have to be the chief's daughter? Did they really have to teach Jake Sully their ways as a hunter so he could understand them? Did the Na'vi really need a white man to come in and save them from the other white men? There's no depth here either. No surprises. It's like someone took a Hollywood Mad Libs script book and followed the formula. Hell- Cameron doesn't even bother to tell us WHY unobtanium (and dear god, what a dumb name! Why not “Hardtogetium” or “Rareicity” or “MacGuffinanium”?) is so important! Is it fuel? Food? Medicine? You want depth in this story? Tell us there's a plague ravaging Earth, and the only way to save the human race is to mine unobtanium (though I guess then it would be “panaceaithium”). have some of these characters desperate to find another way, but needing to ensure the survival of their children on Earth. Nope- we just get that the Corporation wants this stuff 'cuz its 'spensive. Quite the cliché.

And speaking of clichés, here's the part that really got my goat about this film. The portrayal of the military. My own commentary on my Firm on this very Blog has shown there are plenty of people in the military willing to dehumanize the enemy and exploit poor situations. However, the military is also full of some of the finest, most honorable, most intelligent, and caring people on this planet. Many do their jobs to make Earth and America a better place, not just to get resources of value for the Corporation. Yet in this film, the only military characters who show the slightest bit of empathy for the Na'vi are the ones who have been properly deprogrammed by working with the scientists; Jake Sully and Michelle Rodriguez's Scorpion pilot Trudy Chacon. Trudy's been flying these scientists out on their missions, and loves the beauty of the world. She is the sole pilot to disregard the order to bomb the Na'vi tribe's “Hometree,” this tribes homeland for all of history, full of women and children. EVERY other pilot and Marine launches. Every other member of the military shown on screen is perfectly happy to slaughter the blue people because corporate said so (except of course for Jake Sully, who may only be resisting because of the tail... his and Neytiri's). Cameron has dealt with the military in a Science Fiction setting before. The Colonial Marines in Aliens are felled a bit by their arrogance, however most of them are sympathetic characters (CPL Hicks in particular, and even the dipshit Hudson isn't evil) on a mission to save human colonists- in the end those Marines are every bit as exploited by the Corporation Weland-Yutani as the colonist sacrificed to the Xenomorphs are. Even in The Abyss, the SEAL Team leader trying to blow up the aliens is a) trying to do what he thinks is right to save the humans from evil aliens, and b) suffering from madness due to high pressure syndrome. Not here; here in this remake of a film which showed how awful we were in the 1870s, we get Manifest Destiny Marines in the future. Now, maybe I am being over sensitive, but I have a tough time thinking Cameron is trying to remind us of what happened to the American Indian. This would seem to be a message pointed more toward modern day, and since the script and film were developed while GW Bush was still on office, I have a tough time thinking I shouldn't imagine unobtanium as oil, and RDA as Haliburton. Does this mean I should be imagining the soulless, heartless, killing machines perfectly happy to carry out genocide at the request of their corporate masters as... well, me? That seems like a pretty personal affront to me and people like me who put our lives on the line in service to our country. Our leaders goals may be skewed at times, and some of us do certainly lose our way, but to generalize so willingly and unapologetically was more than a bit troubling to me. I kept hoping the movie would surprise me with a twist to break the stereotypes in character, story, and military vilification; nope, we rode it all the way out to Jake leaving his battered, broken, inferior body behind in favor of new blue hotness after leading those noble savages to defeat the evil humans and drive them from the planet.

Again, maybe I am being too sensitive, but I remember another movie came out a few years ago, “Final Fantasy.” It was full CGI, had great production design, a sexy CGI lead, and centered around a Gaia situation being exploited by an evil military officer. “Avatar” doesn't even manage to offend me with any originality.

I am however looking forward to the sequel where the human ships return and don't even bother to land before razing the surface from orbit, magic tree and all. Perhaps by the third film in the trilogy, Jake will show the few surviving Na'vi how to build casinos...

Choose for yourself what you think of it. As a conservationist, it offended me with it's simplistic take on why we should protect our environment. As an SF fan, it offended me as being so derivative of other, better films, and for the laziness involved in developing a truly alien culture. As a member of my firm, it offended me with it's simplistically brutal portrayal of my honorable profession. As someone who wants to see us put aside our differences and reach out into the stars as one world (yeah, I said it), it offended me to say the future is more of the same.

Why can't I have a science fiction movie where human and alien come together, overcome their differences, and put aside barbaric concepts like greed and avarice, while showing a military both strong and humanitarian?

Oh yeah. Live Long and Prosper.